Sunday, July 31, 2011

Aliy Zirkle Iditarod Trail Notes 2011

Part Four of Four

The Western Coast of Alaska

I saw the checkpoint off in the distance and mentally scheduled all of my repacking tasks for when I arrived. The dogs were really moving right now; I didn’t want to stop, even for a minute. But, I needed more fish snacks and at least 10 pounds of Eagle Pack kibble to feed them during the remaining 50 mile run over to the next coastal village.

I knew that Scotty and Bridgett would be there. I was a little worried that the dogs would get emotional when they saw Bridgett, but there was nothing I could do about that. SP Kennel dogs love their “people”. Bridgett has been an important part of the kennel for years. This season she raced some of these dogs earlier in both the Sheep Mountain 150 and the Copper Basin 300. To top that off, she had been Allen’s handler for the last third of the Yukon Quest. I certainly would be able to tell when we left the checkpoint if Bridgett’s presence had an impact.

When I arrived, I tried to “gee” the team so that they stayed out of the middle of the other resting dog teams. There was a lot of straw laying around, and I could see Beemer and Tony eyeing a pile close to them.

I looked to my left and there was an entire SP Kennel Pit Crew standing there. Not only were Scotty and Bridgett there, but Ryne stood there smiling! Ryne came to SP Kennel in mid October to help around the kennel. She had really fit in. Ryne loved the SP Kennel dogs - usually sleeping with 2 to 4 every night! She worked harder than I ever could have hoped. It was definitely a stroke of luck that we had found her. But now, in the back of my mind, I wondered what additional mental hurdle this would cause for my team. They would see both Bridgett and Ryne for a “tease” and then be hustled off back down the trail. Hum.

Ryne and Bridgett quickly greeted me and asked if I was staying or going through. “Going through!” They walked off to greet the dogs.

The checker looked through my gear and brought me my food drop bags. This made the ordeal of going through the checkpoint a lot easier. I said a few words to Scotty, but I don’t really remember what we talked about. I was completely focused on packing and my team. I had to yell at Boondocks and Nacho repeatedly as they were already taking off their boots.

I eyed Bridgett and Ryne as they individually cooed and talked to dogs. “How are you little girl?” and “You look so good!” The dogs were wagging their tails faster than windshield wipers on high-speed!

After repacking, I walked up to the leaders. Bridgett and Ryne both moved off into the background - a thoughtful move considering they knew the team would listen to me better if they were not standing right next to us. Quito was beside herself with energy - tail wagging, ears perked. I knew that she wanted to go and was ready to leave. Scout was once again the silent, pensive partner of the duo. I moved him back into swing with Olivia. Quito was now in full command of the team.

I looked at the exit trail. It was a nightmare. Off to the right there was a pure sheet of glare ice at an angle with deep cracks and fissures. The ice was literally bright blue like a glacier. The dogs would certainly slip and slide as soon as they stepped on this ice skating rink. I shook my head and asked them to go.

Quito jumped to go but then turned to the left and away from the horrendous ice. I got off the sled and walked up to her. “Come on gal, let’s stay right here.” And I lead her back to the trail marker. I walked back to my sled and asked her again. “Gee, gee!” The dogs behind her nearly ran over her with their enthusiasm, but once again she turned off to the left despite my commands. Darn it!

For some reason, I stood back and looked at the whole situation. I tried to look at the scene from Quito’s perspective. And then I saw it. There were trail markers leading to the right and the left! I said out loud, “Wait a minute...... there’s a trail marker over here and a trail marker over there?!?” And from back in the distance I heard Bridgett yell, “You can go either way!”

So I let Quito go and we loped away from the checkpoint at a break neck speed. She had known where to go all along, I just had to listen.

The trail did peter out in a quarter of a mile and I had to direct the team with a few “gees” and “overs” to get them to the parallel path. This is when being a veteran musher of ten years comes in handy. I know exactly where the trail goes in order to get to SHAKTOOLIK. Every year, the marked path out of UNALAKLEET zigs and zags, over gravel, rocks and poor trail. I stood back and looked at the overall picture and made some decisions of where to travel to avoid the worst ice and rocks. We stayed off to the left and away from the trail markers until we got into the hills.

The Beauty of the Race

It was evening now, and the sun had set. Darkness began to cover the land as we started climbing the Blueberry Hills. The darkness could not hide the grandiose ocean that lay just off to our left. A few miles out in the frozen pack ice lay a towering island of land. In the darkness, the dark gray island stood out in a vast sea of white.

We began running atop the 200 foot cliffs that skirt the edge of the Bering Sea. At one point, my sled began to slide down a steep slope towards the sea. The dogs never ceased pulling and guided me up the hill to safety. I shook my head at the power and strength of these little dogs. Boondocks and Willie were probably tipping the scale at 35 pounds and Nacho, my “Big Boy”, was just over 50 pounds!

As we continued through the hills, the overall scene was breathtaking. This is one of the most captivating places on Earth. As we traveled north, I couldn’t help but constantly look to the west and south. There was just enough light to make the scene appear like a black and white still shot. I even stopped the team at the top of the highest overlook to enjoy the beauty around me. Wow.

Just as quickly as we motored through the hills, we now began the decent. Off in the distance and down along the ocean was the village of SHAKTOOLIK. It looked deceivingly close as the night sky was lit up by the village street lights. I knew that we had a few hours of travel yet, so I tried to ease the dogs energy as they eyed the lights and charged forward. We descended the hills and began to travel on a frozen lagoon.

The geography here is confusing - especially when you are tired, can’t see well in the darkness and are not accustomed to traveling on the coast. Only after my many years on the Iditarod trail, have I begun to grasp the layout of the land.

The trail heads northwest from the base of the hills on a lagoon. The frozen ocean lies just a stone’s throw to the west. It was so close that it often seemed like we were heading out to sea. But, there is a small spit of land that separates the lagoon from the ocean. Inside that spit, the ice was flat, smooth and easy to travel. Outside the spit, there were towers and chunks of sea ice that made the ocean look unruly. We stayed inside the spit until the trail climbed up on top of it. We traveled the last few miles on the spit and were channeled directly down Main Street, SHAKTOOLIK.

I parked the team and I knew that we had a good run time. It had been less than six hours since we left Bridgett, Scotty and Ryne. I had stopped several times to feed and snack - as well as admire my surroundings.

Sonny Lindner was just leaving and it looked like he was down to an eight dog team. I was very happy to have eleven dogs still. I looked at them and praised them. Most of them were not tired - they were digging and pawing in the checkpoint straw. I fed them snack after snack and they gobbled them up. Then I gave them kibble and fat to top off their bellies. I would water them after they rested.

The sweetest young girl lives in SHAKTOOLIK. She has greeted me for years. She hugs me as soon as I arrive and cries when I leave. She wasn’t dressed very warmly this year since she had struggled out of bed for my two in the morning arrival. I talked to her for almost 10 minutes before I begged her to go back home to bed. She finally obliged me. I headed into the checkpoint building as she walked away.

I had very little time to rest, but I was also quite hungry. My last warm meal had been at EAGLE ISLAND about 48 hours ago. Andy Anderson was the Race Judge and Mark Cox was a volunteer. They had just sat down to munch on some noodles and sauce, so I joined them. I chatted for just a short while and talked mostly about the teams that were ahead of me. I was only the fifth musher that had stayed at the checkpoint - everyone else had gone straight through to KOYUK. Andy said that John Baker’s team looked awesome.

I took my boots and Northern Outfitter pants off and borrowed Mark’s sleeping cot. Andy told me that he’d wake me up, so I did not set my alarm. I wanted to sleep an hour. Apparently, Andy thought that I looked pretty comfortable, so after the hour passed, he came in and told me, “You should sleep a little longer.” I did! I woke up 15 minutes later in a little panic! I hardly ever counted on someone else to wake me up. You never know what will happen out there. The idea that I let myself oversleep at this point in the race got me agitated. This kicked me into high gear and I was able to water the dogs, pack the sled and booty everyone in less than 20 minutes. Bing bang boom ... we were ready!

As I led my team out from the checkpoint building, I saw another musher parked nearby. I didn’t recognize him at first. It was Lance Mackey. He had an eight dog team as well. He, of all mushers, knows that everything has to go right to have a winning race.

We left SHAKTOOLIK early in the morning. We dropped down off of the small land mass and onto frozen water. A river or a lagoon, I’m not sure. For the next few miles, it was very deceiving whether we were traveling on land or water. Periodically, I would see a sprig of grass or tundra and know.

The wind blasted us from the north, so I began to take refuge on my adjustable sled seat. Many dog sleds these days have a veritable “lazy boy” attached on the rear. Mushers will sit down some, most or all of the time depending on persuasion. I have a small portable seat that I can add or subtract depending upon the trail. When I don’t want my seat, I remove the four cotter pins and pack it in my sled bag. I can run better without it attached. Overall, I think the sled tracks straighter when it is removed. But in times of heavy wind, I hunker down behind the handlebars to cut the draft for the dogs. As we motored out into the increasing gale force, I knew that I was helping the team by simply staying out of the wind.

Traveling on the Ocean

It was challenging to stay focused as we started to cross the frozen ocean. The sun was rising and there was whiteness everywhere. We could no longer see the village lights and therefore our direction became dependent on the trail markers. These 3 foot high wooden lath were placed on the down wind side of the trail and they took the brunt from the wind and the team. The leaders would see a marker and run straight towards it. After 800 miles, they have utter confidence in these markers! Only at the last minute they would veer to avoid collision. But, the swing dogs and the remaining team dogs would then be startled with a trail marker directly in front of their noses. Sometimes a team dog would be caught off guard and run right over a marker. Other times, all dogs manage to avoid the hazard, only to have the sled runners crush it. Only with a lot of driver effort could I manhandle the sled so as not to crash into each and every marker.

I decided to try a different technique; I put Biscuit in lead with Quito. In this wind, they were ready to listen to me. We started up again, but this time I asked them to run on the left side of the markers. They knew that the main trail was on the right, but they listened to me. Once in a while, they would see a marker and turn sharply 90 degrees towards it, so I “haw’d” them farther out to the west and towards the ocean. I could still see the markers at a distance, but from a dog’s perspective they could not. Now came the next problem. Quito and Biscuit would constantly try to turn further west. If I were to let them run naturally, they would have headed to Siberia, I was sure.

So over the next few hours, I either directed the team on the west side of the trail and constantly “gee’d” them or I directed the team on the right side of the markers and tried to avoid crushing every other trail stake. I later talked to Jessie Royer about my team “drifting” towards the west. She said she had the identical problem. There must have been something in the wind that made the dogs turn that way. I certainly couldn’t smell it!

I had one other issue while out on the pack ice. Willie, my little “rock star”, had a belly ache. He had diarrhea for the entire run and it was obvious that he was feeling poor. I hadn’t had any gastrointestinal issues with any dog the entire race, so I was worried.

We arrived in KOYUK just before noon. We had been on the frozen ocean for much of the morning and I was happy to be on land again. The afternoon temperatures were going to be warm once again and I knew that the dogs would sleep well in the sunshine. I had seen no other dog team during the crossing.

As the checkers led me to a parking spot, I passed Sven Haltman and Pete Kaiser. It looked like they had not been there long. DeeDee was leaving just as I guided my team onto their straw beds. DeeDee’s team looked good. She still had that big red leader in front.

The Iditarod veterinarians came to check on the team and Dr. Caroline Griffiths was one of them. She has always been very helpful to me, so I confided in her all of the details about Willie. We took his temperature (which was normal), offered him snacks, plain water and dry kibble. He wanted nothing. I was dumbfounded. He had been so healthy only 6 hours ago. I wanted to give him Immodium to stop up his bowels.

Caroline asked me if he had eaten something suspicious. I had fed the entire team the standard dog food and/or fish regime. But..... wait. I told her that he had been digging through the straw in SHAKTOOLIK and there might have been some leftover snacks from a previous team. Since the onslaught of diarrhea had been so sudden and he had no other symptoms of illness, she presumed that he had eaten a bad piece of fish or meat. She advised me against giving him Immodium and letting the bad food run its course through his system. “Oh boy”, I thought. I didn’t really like that gamble, but I agreed. I would continue to offer him plain water and watch him very closely.

I went and talked to Jessie for a short while. She wasn’t happy with her team’s speed. Jessie is usually a rocket up the coast, but this year her race plan had been a little different. She was still running in the top ten, but she was worried about losing places. To top it off, she had gotten lost out on the ocean. She said that she had got off course, then saw no trail markers for miles. I told her about the year that I had gone off course out there and ran directly towards an open lead in the ice. She was lucky!

I then went into the checkpoint. There were many locals - such nice people! I checked in with the Race Comms guy and asked if I could look at a recent race standings printout. Everyone is always super helpful in KOYUK. He handed me a freshly printed sheet as I nibbled on some food. I really wanted to know how Allen was doing. I thought a lot about him during this last section when I was sure that I had knocked down at least 25 trail markers that would have shown him the way. Sorry!

I talked to Pete for just a few short moments before finding a quiet spot in the rear of the building. I slept for an hour. It was a great rest because I laid down directly in front of the heater and the warm air blew on me during my rest. I woke up rejuvenated.

I went out to the dogs. I fed them all some watery broth and most of them drank well. Still Quito and Nacho insisted on eating most of their meals while out on the trail, so I prepared an entire meal in my cooler with them in mind.

It was now mid-afternoon and the sun was directly overhead. It was warm again and there wasn’t much of a breeze. I watched as Pete and Sven left the checkpoint. Pete had a great looking team lead by a nice white leader. I had hoped to piggie back on those two teams, but I hadn’t bootied all of my dogs yet. I watched them trot back down onto the frozen ocean and started rushing myself. “Come on. Come on.”

We were ready to leave in about 15 minutes, but the team was slow to rise. I blamed it on the temperature and I think that I was right. We slowly headed out of the checkpoint and back down on the ocean. The “in” trail and “out” trail are close in proximity. I could see an incoming team only a quarter of a mile away as I “gee’d” the team away. We started to head along the coast toward ELIM.

I have had good runs on this section of trail and bad runs. It wasn’t looking very promising as the dogs’ feet sunk deep into the melting snow. I continued to chatter at the dogs and asked them for as much speed as they could give me. I knew that we were going slowly, but Pete and Sven were only 15 minutes ahead of me and I could see them on the horizon.

On a more positive note, Willie was eating his fish snacks again. He still seemed to have a gastrointestinal issue, but it was better. I hoped Caroline was right. The rest of the dogs were solid. Whenever we stopped, the dogs would all eye me like, “What’s up?” They were always ready to go, they just weren’t moving very fast. “Oh well,” I thought, “We’ll get there when we get there!” I was still pretty upbeat.

The trail soon leaves the frozen ocean and goes over land. Here it follows the beach line up the coast. In the daylight, I could see south towards SHAKTOOLIK as well as west. I thought that I could see another landmass off in the distance but, it may have been a mirage. The sunshine was extremely bright.

We trotted sluggishly into the afternoon sun. At one point, a nice breeze picked up and quartered across the team. It increased and a small blizzard blew across the dogs’ backs. This cooled them off and their gait improved. We passed through the old deserted town called “Moses Point” where a FAA generator still hums and if nothing else, it lights up a small red light on a building.

From Moses Point the Iditarod trail follows a road into ELIM. The road is mainly a snowmachine path in the winter, but it is as wide as a two lane road. The dogs seemed to appreciate the change in scenery and really got moving. ELIM was only 30 minutes away now.

I came to another mental crossroad - whether to go through ELIM or rest a short while. The dogs were doing well now, but they sure were sluggish earlier. Willie had almost completely regained his attitude, but I thought a short rest for him would probably help. The gamble was whether a rest in ELIM would increase their overall speed for the next 120 miles to NOME or whether they were now on “auto pilot”.

This was my consideration: If I rested 2 hours here, would I gain it back in speed? And how much speed would I need for my competition? I was sure that Pete had gone through ELIM; his team looked great, we weren’t going to catch him. I wasn’t sure about Sven, but I bet that he had stayed. Ken Anderson wasn’t too far behind me and I knew that he would go through, but he might really slow down after that. I wasn’t sure who else was around.

I decided that the best thing for the team was to have a short rest before the push over to WHITE MOUNTAIN. I am sure that the team would have gone through without delay, but I also believe that they would have slowed quite a bit. I have since looked at the race times and believe I was right. All of the teams that went through ELIM were slower than me on the next leg, some by nearly two hours.

I pulled in and was greeted by Jake Berkowitz, the Race Official. He seemed a little preoccupied. He greeted everyone with: “You’re not staying, are you?”. Yup! As it turned out, Sven and Sonny Lindner were both here as well.

I learned a little more from Jake when I sat down in the checkpoint building and overheard his telephone conversation. I could see why he was preoccupied. Jake has a very nice kennel of sled dogs. After a great preliminary racing season, for some reason, he leased these dogs out into two separate Iditarod teams instead of racing them himself. One team was being raced by Robert Bundtzen - I must have passed him when I went through UNALAKLEET. The other team was being raced by Trent Herbst - he raced the first 500 miles quite fast, but was now down to an eight dog team. Both men were struggling and there was nothing that Jake could do about it. My heart went out to him... somewhat. But, I had my own race to worry about.

Sven and I sat across the table from one another. “How long are you staying?” he asked. “Two hours,” I said. “Let’s make a deal. We both leave in two hours.”

We shook hands on it.

ELIM is notorious for mushers sneaking out on one another, trying to get that last ditch effort towards the finish line. Sven and I were still racing, but no sense in loosing the little sleep that we could get right now by trying to stay awake to watch when the other was leaving. So, we both slept soundly for 45 minutes.

My alarm went off and I was out the door. It was almost a mini competition to see how quickly we could get our teams ready to roll. My team was parked on the edge of the yard, whereas his team was in the back. I heard him yell, “You’re not leaving yet, are you?”

We both pulled out almost simultaneously. Sven’s leaders listened to him perfectly and passed Quito and Biscuit as they lollygaged. I nagged, “Hey! Come on kids. Focus.” I straightened out the team, adjusted harnesses and boots and watched Sven trot up the road. I jumped back on my sled and took off after him.

After we warmed up from our nap, the team got quite a bit faster in the hills, so we passed Sven only a few miles out of ELIM. I thought I would see him soon again, but I was wrong.

The hills here are significant. “Little McKinley” lives up to its name as one of the last real mountains on the race. As the team was grinding up these hills, I pedaled and ski poled constantly. The last thing that I was looking for was my team to turn around and look back at me like, “Hey... chubby... are ya helping?” So, I helped before they got the chance.

It was a beautiful night. The moon was overhead and brilliant. There was not a cloud in the sky. I didn’t need my headlight beam for much of the run, but I used it anyway. We summited every peak and the dogs never seemed to tire. I was happy that I had chosen to give them a break in ELIM. Their energy and attitude were good.

We came down the mountains and onto the ocean. If I haven’t said it yet, the Western Coast of Alaska is pretty spectacular. This is never more evident than in Golovin Bay. The trail route varies year to year. One route is a straight line over the ocean pack ice. Another option hugs the shore and hills while paralleling the ocean. Which route is taken depends on Mother Nature.

Obviously, the pack ice needs to be frozen solid for ocean travel - and that isn't always the case. There was an enormous coastal storm earlier this winter. The wind raged from the southwest and blew a lot of the pack ice up onto the shoreline and left the ocean water lapping at the shores.

When the ocean refroze it incorporated these huge iceberg chunks and created an extremely rugged route. To top things off, less than a month before Iditarod started, the temperatures soared and much of the recently refrozen ocean began to thaw. There was slush and deep holes in between icebergs.

The Iron Dog snowmachine race was halfway completed during this time. Their race route along the western coast is identical to ours and it was impassable.The trail markers were literally floating in the ocean. The race was postponed and eventually, restarted after they left the coast.

Alaskan newspapers documented the race dilemma and needless to say, the race organization got a lot of flack from the public. Apparently, in the eyes of many... the race must go on! From my perspective, many of these "arm chair enthusiasts" were completely uneducated in the realm of true wilderness travel.

Snowmachines can travel in wet snow and some "brave hearted" souls skip their machines across open water for short distances. But, did I mention that the trail markers were floating? Yearly, already too many people die when their machines fall through river ice, lake ice and the ocean. Sometimes the public’s craving for a "reality show" with true drama is ridiculous. They are asking for serious injury, even death. Reality is reality. TV shows are not.

The town of Golovin lies in the heart of the bay. It is an eerie place for an Iditarod team. It is not a recognized checkpoint, so it has been somewhat forgotten by the race. Dog teams travel right down Main Street, day or night, without much fanfare. The town seems deserted, but it’s not. The villagers have just come to realize that most mushers don't stop or even take time to sign autographs. The reason for this is that mushers claim that their dog teams might get confused about Golovin being a checkpoint and want to stop. But, if your dogs stop without you asking them to, then I surmise that your problems run deeper than Golovin.

During Iditarod this year, there was a team that refused to run past Golovin. But, in defense of Golovin, there was also a team that refused to run much past Shaktoolik. I do not claim to know why these particular occurrences happened, but I am sure that the dog - human communication link started to break down well before the quitting point. Most workers don't strike until their final negotiations fail.

My team trotted into Golovin, down Main Street, and back out. I have to admit that a few of the dogs who had never seen the place before; Quito, Scout, Nacho, Olivia, Willie and Boondocks; were slightly preoccupied. "What were all the lights and no people?"

For us, the trail leaving Golovin was routed along the shoreline of the bay. As we skirted the bay, there were trail markers lining the shore, but there was also the occasional marker out in the middle of the ice. It was obvious that these markers, far from shore, had floated for a while and then refroze in that random spot. The dogs were so used to heading straight toward trail markers, that I had to stay alert in order to keep the team on the correct path.

Occasionally, I would gaze behind us. I was surprised to not see Sven's headlight glow. Unless his team's speed had really slowed down, I was sure that we'd be racing each other to the finish line.

The Last Checkpoint

My team was strong. Maybe we hadn't needed those two hours of rest in Elim. Or maybe, that's why they looked so good. I couldn't change the past so, I looked forward instead.

We were soon on the Fish River and off the ocean. It is only a few miles up river to the last true checkpoint along the Iditarod trail. It is such a sense of relief to arrive there. The team felt my excitement and picked up the pace. Tony, Meg, Biscuit and Beemer also knew where we were. Tatfish was simply happy because he's Tatfish. Locations don't concern him. Before we rounded the last river bend the dogs were loping.

WHITE MOUNTAIN lay on the river bank to the east. The village cabins sprawled out for a half mile along the beach before the checkpoint. The dogs started veering to the right as soon as they saw the buildings. They were excited about being here!

I saw the checkers waving at me from a distance. I knew where to go, but my rookie dogs were convinced that they were on the correct path. I finally persuaded them to head a little farther up river with the help of veterans Biscuit and Tony.

There was a “check-in” chute built out of the food drop bags. We trotted down the center. I had sent a lot of food and extras here, so when they pulled my 5 bags from the chute wall there was a large hole. I drug all of my bags to an empty camping spot at the end of the long line of resting dog teams. Only four teams had left for the finish line.

My dogs’ biggest fans were there as well: Bridgett and Ryne. They had shared a ride on a snow machine for nearly 80 miles in order to greet us. Pretty dedicated! I feed the dogs dry kibble mixed with fat and once again, they gobbled it down. My team had a good appetite and attitude. Bridgett and Ryne were happy to see that!

I put blankets on most of the team despite the fact that it would be a warm afternoon. I then began to re-pack my sled. I had a pile of “keep” and a pile of “ship home”. In the past, I had made some mistakes paring down to less than the essentials. So, I made sure that I kept a few extras that I thought I would surely never use, but you never know...

As I was re-packing, a tall man came up next to me and said hello. It was my Dad! Quite a surprise. He had been in Anchorage for much of the race tending to the dropped dogs. Dad had been shuttling dogs from Anchorage or Palmer to our friend’s kennel in Knik. He had also made several veterinarian visits and generally kept close tabs on everyone’s health. He said: Bonita wasn’t even limping and was full of energy, Snickers foot still looked sore, Rose had no more inflammation, but really would rather sleep inside, nothing was wrong with Tug and Butterscotch was happy-go-lucky. A pretty good report! We had a small happy reunion at the checkpoint. After I was finished with the dog chores and my sled, we all walked up the hillside to the building.

As we walked up, we saw a dog team arriving. It was Sven. An hour and a half after I arrived he came into the checkpoint. He had gotten lost. The multitude of race markers had lead him off on another trail. He eventually had to double back and try to guess which markers were legitimate. I was now quite a distance ahead of him.

When I got inside, I immediately took off my Northern Outfitters gear and hung it to dry. I could smell my body odor as I hung up my pants. Whew! If I could smell myself, you know it’s bad! Everyone was very social, but I noticed that no one would sit too close to me.

The mandatory drug testing lab was set up in WHITE MOUNTAIN again this year. It took me no time to check that obligation off the list. I had been drinking my half gallon of Gatorade religiously.

I was pretty hungry at this point as well, so we all sat in the kitchen and I ate. Bridgett and Ryne said that Allen had looked great in UNALAKLEET. He was in a racing mood, so he had switched his big bulky sled for a smaller one that we had shipped out prior to the race start. He was motoring along with a happy 12 dog team. He really wasn’t that far behind me!

As we looked at the race standings printout, we knew that Ramey probably wouldn’t catch John. Everyone expected John to cross the finish line any minute. Race officials, volunteers and mushers suddenly began to crowd into the kitchen. Then someone who was thinking, turned on the TV. There it was ... the finish line in NOME. Not 80 miles away, but right on the plasma screen.

The sports commentator was killing some time as John neared the finish. He started talking about the next few mushers slated to finish. Ramey, Hans, Dallas, Hugh, Sebastian, Ray..... Ray? Ray Reddington? I turned to Ray and said, “Buddy, you better get outta here. You’re expected in Nome!”

In just a few minutes, the cameraman focused on a dog team trotting down Front Street. John Baker and his fabulous Kotzebue canines were making history. They saw the huge crowd and balked at the finish chute. The team started to get in a big tangle and John ran up and grabbed a brown dog who was in the middle of the team. He took her by the harness and led the team across the finish line. His finish wasn’t the “glorious trotting across the line” picture postcard. Andy Anderson, the Race Offcial, told us that brown dog was in heat and that the whole team had been in love with her much of the race. John had to go grab her quickly or there would have been romantic chaos at the finish line.

On that note, I excused myself and found my sleeping bag. I found a tiny warm corner in a packed room with my fellow mushers. I cannot describe the snoring! I didn’t sleep that well. I was so close to the finish line and my adrenaline was pulsing. I woke up when the checkpoint volunteer tried to wake up DeeDee. “What? Who are you? Where am I? What?” I later talked to the checker and she said that many mushers wake up and don’t know where they are.

I packed my sleeping bag before my alarm went off. I was ready to roll. My dad had to leave on the next scheduled flight to NOME, so he was gone. Bridgett and Ryne would wait to leave until after I left.

The dogs were still sleeping in the same positions where I had left them. The sun was bright overhead and warm. I started to rub down canine shoulders and backs. I wanted everyone to be awake and loosened up before we were scheduled to leave. I made some broth and dog food. I fed another meal and prepared one for the trail. I brought extra kibble with me that I could feed in case of emergency as well as spare fuel.

A large group of kids began to meander our way. Perhaps a school science project? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to be rude, but I was ready to focus on the trail ahead, so I asked Bridgett and Ryne to talk to them. This made their day because they got to “do something” instead of just standing around watching me - which was just about to kill them both! For over 30 minutes, I overheard the girls telling stories about the dogs and the race.

Ken Anderson was parked right next to me. When he was about to leave I tried to mess with him a little. I said “You only have eight dogs? I thought you had more. Hum. You better keep your sled pretty light with only eight dogs. You just might see me again after all.” He found the banter amusing. Ken is a super competitive guy. He can motivate a dog team to the finish line, so I was really just blowing smoke. But, it was fun.

I asked the checker how long I had to wait and she said about 20 minutes. I didn’t want to be late, so I started to walk the dogs around, letting each one do their business. As I walked them, I noticed who was sluggish and who was motivated. I lined up my team with the most motivated dogs in front. I said, “See ya” to Bridgett and Ryne and gave a quick huge to the always thoughtful WHITE MOUNTAIN checkers.

As it turned out, I had a huge audience as I left the checkpoint. The kids were all still there and another airplane of spectators had just landed from NOME. Thank goodness it didn’t take too long until we were out of sight.

A Strong Finish

Once again the scenery was fantastic. The Fish River, with spots of wind blown glare ice, gave way to open tundra fields. Then the trail inched its way over ridges and down valleys heading towards the coast. The wind picked up in several places and cut perpendicular to the team’s direction. This cooled the dogs but wasn’t strong enough to effect the sled.

I looked at the sled tracks in front of me and tried to gauge if I was moving faster than teams ahead. My runners would often share the same track as as teams running before me. In other words, we were going the same speed. Once in a while, I imagined that we were going faster.

I constantly looked to the horizon in front of me and behind me. At this point in the race, you never know who is within reach. I saw no one.

It took several hours of climbing to reach the last hill before the ocean, Topcock. On the summit, I looked out over the team and saw an amazing sight. It was the ocean. But, it was dark black and ominous. There was no pack ice! Wow.

It seemed incongruous to see water at this time of the year. I shook my head and talked to the dogs. We were lucky to have followed the route laid out for us. It was obvious that one wrong turn this year could have been tragic.

I knew the last 50 miles into NOME well. Not only had I traveled it by dog team, but Allen and I had driven much of it in a truck during the summertime. I was very confident with Biscuit and Quito in lead, so we made headway as we paralleled the sea shore.

Off in the distance, I saw what looked like a cloud on the horizon. For the record, I had not seen even one cloud for the entire 1,000 mile race. Could there possibly be a cloud on the last day, near the last mile? I joked with the dogs and said, “It must be a cloud of locusts.” In the back of my brain, I knew exactly what it was.... a ground blizzard.

Ground blizzards are another crazy feature of the western coast. Where we were, there was a light breeze from the north. But, from the look of it, a few miles ahead was quite windy.

As we got closer and closer, the wind picked up. In a few minutes, the blizzard was in full force. The dogs started to drift off to the left. The wind enveloped my sled and moved us farther off to the left. This pulled the wheel dogs over, and they looked back at me. I kept talking to the team and tried to sooth their concerns.

As things tend to do, the wind got worse. The visibility dropped and the only trail markers that were visible were the huge logs that towered twenty feet in the air. On calm days, travelers might wonder why these enormous posts dot the shoreline. During a ground blizzard these posts are the only thing visible.

The team was being blown way off to the left and toward the ocean. My sled was even farther over. I constantly yelled into the wind, “Stay gee! Gee!” Quito tried her hardest to pull towards the right, but Biscuit seemed content to travel whereever the wind blew him. The whole team kept a constant speed as we continued to get blown out to sea. The sled would clammer over drift wood and rocks and I knew that we were not on the trail anymore. Off in the distance I could see the tall markers occasionally. If I just saw them now and then, I was satisfied.

I didn’t want Biscuit in lead anymore, but I certainly wasn’t going to stop in the storm. I left him up there and began to talk to him directly. I commanded him, “Gee.” He knew what I wanted. We struggled as a team for several miles until the visibility began to improve. The wind calmed as quickly as it had arrived. Soon we were in the clear. I looked back and that darn “swarm of locust” was still in the same place! Crazy.

I left Biscuit in lead now that he seemed content to travel on the trail. These two were a fun combo. They had tremendous energy and enthusiasm, but no logic or wisdom. Perhaps they would learn over time. But, this race was soon coming to a close and I decided the two of them deserved to finish in lead.

When we passed through SAFETY, I looked at the sign-in sheet. Ken was still about 30 minutes ahead of me and I didn’t think that I could catch him. I was pretty happy with the team, so I just gave them the trail. I wasn’t going to push them the last 20 miles to the finish - we would get there when we got there.

It was fun to travel past the fishing cabins and houses along Safety Sound. There were also road signs and mileage markers, so the dogs perked up at these distractions. I have to admit, when we rounded the corner to start the climb over Cape Nome, I once again eyed the horizon for Ken and his team. There was a chance that he was up there.

We had an easy climb over the Cape and started the decent toward NOME. This is where my emotions run the highest. The lights of NOME are the reality that .... we have made it! One thousand miles by dog sled. Just me and my dogs. I let the dogs make their own pace downhill.

I saw vehicle lights in the distance and knew that my friends and family were watching for me. That fact made me smile. I know how sentimental I get when I drive out to see Allen mushing to the finish, so I empathized. I waved at the red truck when we passed and smiled. The dogs didn’t have a care in the world that trucks were driving here and there - they seemed dead set on a goal. Reality was, most of my front end and leaders had never been to NOME before. They had no specific goal. They didn’t know that we were finishing. They were happy to cruise along in the darkness.

I saw the red truck once more before dropping down onto the Nome River, a few miles out of town. The trail usually heads out onto the ocean here, but this year, it did not. It turned back toward the road heading into the village and ran parallel.

We really began to see traffic now. It looked like the whole village of NOME was out to greet us! I waved to a few folks and then looked up the trail towards NOME.

HOLY COW! There was a headlight glow in front of me! That could only mean one thing.... I was catching Ken after all. The competitive Aliy jumped into action. I honestly went a little crazy. I knew that I had to give it my all for the last 2 miles. That’s it. That was all I had to catch that team - 2 miles.

I started to clap and holler at my team. At first they looked back at me in confusion. The headlight glow was too far off for them to see. It had been so peaceful for the last few hours. “What happened to her?”

“Come on team. Let’s go!” was my constant nagging as I ski poled and pedaled as physically hard as I could. We started to lope and then canter. I was sure that we were going 15 mph. The headlight glow didn’t seem to get any closer, but I didn’t give up. I didn’t let myself look up while I pedaled and poled with all the strength that I could muster.

I had a predicament now as well. I had Biscuit and Quito in lead. If I caught that team after “No Man’s Land” then I would have to try and pass it on the move. The Race Rules say that a team must stop and give way to a faster team, except if you are in “No Man’s Land” - the last 1/2 mile of the race. There was no way that those two dogs would pass another team while it was moving. I had to pass it while we were still paralleling the road. Soon!

There was road traffic just off to the right and a mini van that seems to be following my every move. I felt like I was leaving my lungs on the trail. I could taste blood as my throat burned from breathing so hard. But, I never let up.

We got closer. Then the musher quickly got off the sled, ran up to the team, and then scurried back to the sled. That wasn’t Ken! I was pretty sure that was DeeDee. With that movement, my dogs finally saw my reason for the insanity and they reacted with excitement. A dog team!

Biscuit, Quito and the entire squad charged ahead. I was going to pass her. I turned my headlight off so that the dogs could see the team better and she could not see me coming. She had been faster than me the entire race; who was to say that she couldn’t pull out the stops and pick up that speed again now?

We came up on her left and surprisingly my leaders pulled up beside her sled. Before I could yell “Trail,” she stopped her team and let me pass.

I knew it wasn’t over. That was DeeDee Jonrowe right behind me. So, I kept pedaling and poling. I turned my headlight off again. Just as my team had gotten excited by seeing hers, I didn’t want that to happen in reverse. Suddenly, the dogs veered off course and I had to turn it on again. I flicked it on and off periodically and then the battery died. Darn!

My headlight bag was buried in the sled. I pedaled, poled and dug through my sled bag. I finally came up with a spare and tucked it in my pocket. The trail was lit illuminated from the street lights, so I used this time to try and stretch my lead. I couldn’t have tried any harder.

Several people were standing trailside. They thought that I was DeeDee. I passed one of DeeDee’s friends who kept telling me that she loved me and would see me at the finish. I never said a thing, but I felt a little bad. I then passed a few people who “Boo’ed” me. Gasp! I know that DeeDee has fans, but heck!

I quickly changed out my battery when I knew that I was gaining a lead. I needed the headlight beam to guide the dogs up onto Front Street. We were there. The team trotted up onto the street and immediately went the wrong way. Darn it. They corrected, but Nacho got his foot tangled in the line and slipped down on the street. I had to stop and flip my sled over and run up to the Big Boy. It was a quick untangle and we were off. I peered back, but did not see her.

My only concern now was if I could get these guys to run straight down the middle of a city street and up the ramp. If I had trouble, I knew that she would catch me. I stayed completely and utterly focused on my leaders. I asked them to go “straight ahead” constantly. They didn’t zig or zag - they went straight ahead.

There were people everywhere, but only in my periphery. The team took my every command and marched straight up the street and into the chute.

I heard an instant screech and knew that it was Bridgett. She was beside herself. I could barely breath, but I think she was worse. She was running through the dogs screaming and smiling. I guess she was happy to see us.

A minute and forty-six seconds later, DeeDee came in behind me. What a finish! The chute was packed with two dog teams, families, friends and fans.

Looking Back

I was honored to simply be in the position to start this great race. I have now started, and finished, fourteen 1,000 mile sled dog races. I am extremely proud to have finished them all.

As far a numbers go, 11th place is admirable, but I’m not sure it means that much. It is obvious how quickly a musher can loose or gain one or even two places in just the last few miles.

I tried to run the best race that I could, keeping a balance between my race plan, the well-being of my team and my competitive spirit. Overall, I am happy with this year’s race. I believe that I often made the correct decisions for myself and my team.

Mushers are so driven during this marathon event. Although many mushers befriend each other and even appear to travel together, there is fierce competition during the race. It appears to me that it takes an overall steady calmness in character to occasionally taper this competitive drive. If Iditarod really is just a chess game, then in the beginning, you best not act like a pawn so you’ll still have your king in the end.

It has become more and more obvious to me that there is a fine line between mental toughness and stupidity.

It is true that a healthy, fit, well-nourished sled dog can do nearly anything that a musher asks. But even then, you can’t just ask and ask and ask. They also need to be rewarded. All mushers do not use the same reward system - rest, food, praise. But, every successful musher has a well-founded system.

Only when a dog team and a musher have a true understanding and that musher acts with no fear of failure, can he or she win the Iditarod.

Looking Forward

So much went into this race, but even more has come out of it. I knew that there would be many questions answered about my abilities, my gear and my dogs. Now is the time that I must listen to the answers.

My abilities.

I am completely confident in my abilities to tend to my dogs. I know each dog intimately and can read them at the most critical times. It would be best to continue to train and coach the dogs before the race starts. Our training program has to stay focused and dedicated. The Iditarod is not the time to instruct or a teach a dog. It is a time to compete and “show them what you got”.

I understand how to be a competitive dog musher. I am not weak in terms of knowledge and understanding of the actual “down-to-Earth” dynamics of the race. I am also pretty good at following a race plan. But, maybe my plan needs some adjustment. The team continues to rise to all of my expectations. Perhaps they are too low.

My gear.

My gear is “top of the line”. Harness selection is per individual dog. My sled is an older style but durable. I spare no expense for booties, blankets, wind breakers, leggings - anything a dog might need. I was extremely happy with my food drops and my dog food. Eagle Pack produces a quality product.

For the first time in many years, I was very happy with all of my clothing. I have worn the Northern Outfitters arctic system over top quality garments from Sporthill and Ibex for a few years. That works great for me. However, this year was the first time that I put my confidence in Northern Outfitters boots as well.

My big toe joint is ruined on my right foot and any pressure on that joint causes severe pain. What I really need is bone fusion surgery, but until that happens my foot gear must help me, not hurt. I started wearing the N.O. pack boots because they looked awfully warm. While testing them, I learned that I could also reduce the amount of pressure on my big toe with a simple cinch strap. Problem solved... temporarily.

Lastly, the dogs.

SP Kennel dogs are a funny group. They are truly a family - every dog on my team was related. As a whole, they have some interesting family quirks and nuances. Overall, they are a group of friendly, tail-wagging huskys. They are incredibly dedicated and hardworking, but many of them also enjoy a romp around the yard or basement. They are very small in stature, some folks calling them petite. If Boondocks was not the smallest dog on Iditarod this year, I would be surprised.

I have no plans to go out tomorrow and buy the biggest and best sled dogs in Alaska. I believe that with proper training and coaching, I already have them. I will, however, try to increase and improve our gene pool, a healthy biological move. I hope to breed one of the SP Kennel super stars with a super star from another kennel.

I respect my dogs as individuals, but I also expect a great deal from them. I treat them as I would hope to be treated in the same situation. That might sound strange because I am not a dog. But, I am a competitive athlete with a desire to work hard, push myself to my limits and prove that I am the best at what I do.

I thanked each and every dog for the heart, soul and muscle that they put into a good 2011 Iditarod. Here they are:

Quito was worth her weight in gold. This was her first run to the Iditarod finish line. She shined from the starting line all the way to Nome. She was always happy, responsive and upbeat. Pressure doesn’t bother her. Quito will be a true leader of the future. I had to feed her on her own schedule however and that was a hassle. She would not eat well when it was convenient for me. When I accepted that fact and calculated her appetite time-line, then I was able to keep her well fed. She never impressed me more than her single lead exit from UNALAKLEET.

Biscuit has raced five Iditarods. He has always been the dog who comes through in the end. He is powerful and tough in the team, but sensitive when it comes to human interaction. This was the first year that I trusted him in lead. He will always go when I ask, but he might not choose the correct direction. Biscuit is not the smartest fellah, but he has good intentions.

Scout ran the entire Iditarod as a leader’s assistant. Even though he traveled hundreds of miles in lead, he was never really the “one” that I counted on. But, this was his first Iditarod and he never let me down. He wants to be more of an alpha dog on the team, so I will try to build him up in coming years. Scout’s a good boy and will shine in the future.

Olivia was solid. She is her mother’s (ChaCha) daughter. I made a conscious choice to count on Quito as a leader this race, but Olivia would have probably obliged me. The second half of the race, Olivia became the team’s motivating factor. Her position was just behind the leaders much of the time. In that spot she could be the cheerleader but had very little pressure on her. She had the ideal race and a first Iditarod finish.

Nacho also finished his first Iditarod. He was a steady powerhouse. He was alway happy and animated. He also loves attention. He scared me a little bit just before UNALAKLEET, but in the long run this plan revision probably helped my overall race. Nacho will get stronger and cockier in the years to come.

Tony was the “old man” on the team who didn’t mind playing the part. He would groan and moan when he got a foot massage or rub down. He was always aware of where we were on the race course. From the middle of the team he would peer over the dogs in front of him. If he knew where we were going, he’d turn the entire team from that position. He was opinionated and in the end, he was very proud of himself - as he should have been. This was Tony’s sixth trip down the Iditarod trail.

Meg was a strong dog. I used her primarily as a team dog this race. I didn’t want her to have to think too much. She does better with out too much pressure. She doesn’t lack confidence by any means but, she was better when she just needed to focus on one thing. She will work in any position that I ask her to take. Meg was a well-rounded dog during this race.

Willie doesn’t know that he’s a pint-sized pup. Or he just doesn’t care. He enjoys himself, his team mates and his musher. As a two-year old dog, he didn’t know enough to be intimidated by anything and after his performance in this race he believes that there is nothing he can’t do. Willie is not arrogant, he is sincere. He had a phenomenal first Iditarod.

Boondocks was a Rock Star! A two-year old rookie run and I had no complaints. Her attitude was certainly bigger than her body. Boondocks was the cover girl on the January 2010 Mushing Magazine and the photo made her look like a 75 pound ferocious brute. The secret is that she barely registers 34 pounds - on a good day! Boondocks has a long, awesome sled dog career in front of her.

Beemer was a little low spirited during the race. He had a tooth extraction only a week or so before the start and he never got his pep back. He did his job. He never complained, but he wasn’t the life of the party. I teamed him with Boondocks because she would harass him all of the time. I was also sure that he had a crush on her. That was Beemer’s third year on Iditarod.

Tatfish is last because he makes everyone smile. He has raced Iditarod five times. He is lighthearted about everything. Nothing is serious to Tatfish. Sometimes, I wasn’t even sure that he was working very hard. He would stop to play with a bush or pee on a snow berm while running three-legged. But, Tatfish was always there when I needed him and he was usually the dog that I slept next to while camping. Everyone loves Tatfish.

In retrospect....

Yearly, I have to remind myself and the readers that I write these Trail Notes primarily for myself. Originally, I kept all of this insight and self revelation to myself. I learned a lot from writing down and remembering my actions, thoughts and feelings. I guess it is in my nature to always improve and these Trail Notes help me do so.

Several years ago, I shared some of these pages with a few friends and sponsors. They appreciated the narrative and I thought it was a fair trade for their support.

Now, in our computer generated world of bloggers and the internet the best method for me to share these Trail Notes with select folks is to post them on my website. It makes me a little nervous that they are now completely public and for the world to read and judge.

So, I ask that you remember that this is my story - my opinion - my views.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Aliy Zirkle Iditarod Trail Notes 2011

Part Three of Four

I love being out in the Alaskan wilderness with my dog team.

And, as we went in and out of the tiny little IDITAROD checkpoint, the team seemed to gel. No one was stressed or over worked. They all looked powerful.

The terrain in this area is hilly and the trail seems to run perpendicular to the mountain range. So, soon as you descend one summit, you are greeted by an ascent to the next. We were told to expect poor trail conditions here, but surprisingly, the snow laden track was firm and provided fantastic footing for the dogs. I was very pleased as we scooted along down the trail.

My wrist watch was timing our run so, I started looking for a camp spot 10 minutes before time was up. I soon found a small snow machine trail off to the left into some spruce trees. I gave the leaders a "haw" and they went without hesitation.

The spot was good for the dogs, but a little challenging for me. It had been only a few hours since a snow machine had created this trail, so it was not firm to walk on top. I sank up to my hips when I got off the sled runners. In order to make the next few hours of my life easier, I wallowed back and forth beside the team creating a deep trench where I could walk more easily. While doing this, I also cut all of the small spruce trees and boughs in the vicinity. This was because, I had carried less straw than usual (in order to lighten our load in the mountains). I used the spruce for dog beds. As I put dog jackets on, they curled up on their "Christmas smelling" beds.

It was colder here than it had been all race. Without a thermometer, I was not sure of the temperature.... 10 below, maybe.

The moon had not come up yet, so when I turned my headlight off, the darkness was complete. I turned it back on and went about my chores of massaging, cooking, feeding and repacking. Then, I set up my sleeping spot in between Willie and Tatfish. I took out my pad, sleeping bag and bivvy sack and laid them down. I hadn’t cut any spruce for my bed, which turned out to be a lazy mistake.

I fell asleep as soon as I got comfortable, but, I woke up 20 minutes later, curled up in a frozen ball. I had slid off of my pad and down into my walking trench. My right hip was frozen to the ground and I could feel the cold as it inched up through my joints. Brrrrr!

I rolled out of my bag with my teeth chattering. In the darkness, I found my boots and parka and went stumbling down the trail. A quick sprint got my blood pumping again and I could soon focus.

I had to re make my entire sleeping outfit - something I should have done correctly in the first place! I grabbed all of Willie’s spruce boughs since he didn’t seem to appreciate them and moved away from the trench. I gathered a little more spruce and piled the whole lot under my sleeping pad. Then, I laid my beaver mitts directly under my hips and the straw bag under my upper torso. My bed looked quite a bit better now! I laid down, looked at my watch and only had about 15 minutes until I had to get up. Argh! That’s why efficiency and planning are so important in this race. When you are disorganized, the first thing that goes is your sleep!

When I did get up, I would have paid $100 for a good cup of coffee. For anyone who doesn’t know; coffee is the second love-of-my-life. I had gone “cold turkey” off coffee on February 16th - over three weeks ago. I have done this for years now and sincerely believe that removing caffeine from my system for those few weeks results in my body’s low resistance to the effects of drug. When I really need to stay awake on the race, caffeine does the trick! This is the first time in the race that I allowed myself a “No Doze” caffeine pill. It wasn’t too much later that I was literally zooming back down the trail towards SHAGELUK.

A few dog teams had passed our camp spot while we rested. I soon caught up to one. It was Karin Hendrickson. She had a huge sled. It was a “sit-down” variety with a front sled bag as large as my entire unit. The trail was quite skinny in this area, so I stayed behind her for a little while. Finally, I guess I got impatient (caffeine?) and passed in a bad spot. When I started to pass, she couldn’t get her sled very far off the trail. Quito and Scout were not as aggressive as I had hoped in passing the team and they just strolled up next to Karin’s team. Immediately we were all bunched together with my sled stuck behind hers. The dogs were visiting each other and tangling lines. No one got grouchy, so it all eventually worked out.

I thought about it later, and realized that there was probably a reason behind her massive sled. She had crashed early in the 2010 race and I believe her sled had actually broken in two pieces. I guess this year, she had reinforced it, so that it wouldn’t happen again!

We left her team and trotted towards the next checkpoint. It was morning now and the sky was once again bright blue with not a cloud to be seen. The horizon looked hundreds of miles away as we crested several treeless summits. I was amazed that from the top of one of these summits, I could see the cliffs of the Yukon River. They had to be 40 miles away. I was sure that I was smiling, as we made our way west.

We still had a few hours left on our run time as we approached SHAGELUK, so we wouldn’t be stopping at that checkpoint either. It was a shame because it is such a nice village with super friendly folks. When we arrived, I joked around with the checkers. In such great weather, everyone was in a good mood.

While parked in the check-in chute, I left my team and I walked in front of them toward my food drop bags. I took the booties and fish snacks. While walking back, I checked out my team from a different perspective - their eyes were bright, tails were wagging and Quito was jumping in her harness. Scout was a bit more reserved, but Nacho and Olivia were literally bonkers as well! So, when I got back to the team, I moved Scout back two spots back - where Butterscotch had vacated. I had Quito in single lead and Nacho and Olivia screaming to go behind her. I had to run back to my sled because the threesome were about to pull the snow hook. As we loped out of town, we passed a few parked teams. Dallas Seavey yelled, “See you down the trail!” I tried to wave but the team sprinted down a side hill and I had to grab my handlebar with both hands to keep from falling.

The trail from SHAGELUK to ANVIK is like a moonscape. We traveled over vast wide swamps and tundra. In some areas, the tallest vegetation is only about 6 inches. The horizon is so far off you might think that you were in the middle of the frozen ocean. As we traveled, I wondered how the locals ever knew where to put the trail. I saw no natural break in terrain or vegetation that would show a person which way to go. It is a mystery to me how they mark the trail without getting lost. But, I was pretty thankful that they did!

Soon, the sun was making its presence known and the dogs were warm. Their pace slowed a bit. I still had a few hours of run time on my schedule, but once again I had to consider my “chess game”. ANVIK was only an hour away and GRAYLING was at least 4 more. I needed to take an 8-hour break at one of the checkpoints along the Yukon. I did some quick calculations and “what-ifs” and reworked my race plan. I would stop in ANVIK for the remainder of the warm afternoon then during the cooler night hours I would push past GRAYLING, all the way to EAGLE ISLAND, where I would rest 8 hours. Now, we just had to implement that plan....

We made our way through the moonscape and onto a river drainage. One river fed into the next and they got larger and wider. We popped up over a twenty foot portage trail and came shooting down an icy slope onto a large vast river. “This has to be the Yukon”, I thought. (Believe it or not there aren’t many road signs on the 1,000 mile Iditarod.) But, then the trail turned due south and I knew that couldn’t be. We have to travel north on the Yukon in order to make it to Nome! I had a minor panic until this drainage, once again, opened up on still a larger river, and there she was .... the mighty Yukon. We now were heading north.

The Yukon River

I have been here six times. Every time I am amazed by the utter enormity of the Yukon. It is almost 2,000 miles in length and about a mile wide near ANVIK. My mind started to wander as we crossed the frozen river and headed towards the western shore. My team and I had trotted down the Yukon earlier in the winter during the Yukon Quest 300. We started that race a month ago at the Canadian headwaters of the river. I wondered how fast the water traveled underneath the ice and whether I got here first or the water did. Calculations started to roll around in my mind: speed, distance, time. Equations and mathematics were never my strong suit when I was wide awake and concentrating, so I soon gave up. It was challenging enough to focus on my current run/rest schedule and how long I intended to stay in ANVIK.

The team perked up when they saw a snow machine parked off to the side of the trail. I could also see the village on the river bank just behind the machine. The dogs have a slightly different perspective, so it took them a few more minutes until they focused on the buildings in the distance. As we neared, the hustle and bustle of a Yukon River town became apparent. We trotted up the bank and followed the race markers down the main street. We made our way, passing cabins, vehicles and dogs. The whole team was excited and trotted with their tails high in the air. The checkpoint was a mile down the road and around a corner.

I pulled in and parked the team. I was right in front of Rick Swenson’s team and to the right of Ramey Smyth’s. There were a few more teams scattered in the area. The checkers were super friendly and the Vet’s started to look through my team. I had no big issues, so after bedding everyone down, I went inside.

I was tired. It had been a day and a half since I had been indoors. I was looking forward to taking off my boots and resting in the warmth. But, I only wanted to stay until the sun went down. My rest time would be limited. I had a quick bite to eat and laid down in the communications room. I think the “No Doze” pill still had some lingering effects because I had a restless sleep and woke up every time the “comms” volunteer would send or receive info on the HAM radio. I did, however, learn where all of my competitors were as I listened; “DeeDee Jonrowe, left Anvik 1805, 12 dogs.”

I got up after laying down for about an hour. I wanted to change my runner plastics and go through my gear before leaving the checkpoint. I went back outside and greeted the team. I could tell that they had a great rest in the sunshine. Most of them barely lifted their heads as they saw me approach. Peaceful.

Rick Swenson was talking up a storm to his dogs as he switched out harnesses. I was thoroughly impressed with his resilience. He was still caring for his team - over and above what the average musher would do - and his broken collarbone couldn’t feel very good. This really inspired me and I went through my team with a fine tooth comb before leaving.

Quito was a little thin, but her favorite time to eat was after running for 5 hours. So, I made a full meal in my cooler and carried it in the sled. Scout was solid. Nacho liked to eat with Quito, so I had him covered. Olivia was very intense. She slept, ate and worked like a champion. Meg was strong. Tony was a professional. Willie continued to surprise me with his great rookie attitude. Boondocks was a trooper, but she didn’t care for the wind. Beemer was a little “hum-drum” at times, but was thoroughly in love with Boondocks so they were teamed up together. Biscuit was flawless. And Tatifsh was his usual silly self.

I packed my sled full with fish snacks and prepared dog food. I planned to offer the team food every other hour. And not just a tiny snack. I probably carried 75 pounds of food. We left in the late evening.

The Yukon welcomed us with a slight breeze. The dogs appreciated it. The river ice was covered with snow. Not the dozen feet that we encountered two years ago, but plenty to keep the trail soft. There was not all that much snow machine traffic either, so it was a nice night to travel.

It wasn’t too long before we saw the lights of GRAYLING. I was almost bummed because the team was moving so nicely. I didn’t want to break up there rhythm. But, we trotted up the river bank once again and headed towards a crowd near the checkpoint building.

There was a cheerful group to greet us. I told them that I wasn’t stopping, but needed to go through my food drop bags. I needed to take out the booties and dog blankets that I had sent ahead. I send so much gear out on the trail that I would really lose a great deal of money if I didn’t sort through my bags at every checkpoint. So, I stood beside my sled and looked through the bags. But, suddenly the team was ready to go! They began to bark and leap in the air. They surged ahead! Luckily, someone quickly jumped on my break and halted them a few feet down the trail. This amped energy was a good sign as long as they didn’t leave without me.

I asked if any teams had made it to EAGLE ISLAND yet. No one had. It was nice to know that the race leaders were right in front of me!

Soon, we were back down on the Yukon River. I estimated this run was going to be the longest of my race yet. I was pleased that the dogs looked so energetic. It had something to do with the cooler night temperatures.

The moon began to rise over the river bank. It was enormous as it crested the horizon. What a gorgeous night. The dogs and I traveled the next 70 miles and watched as the moon went up overhead and back down toward the opposite horizon.

There is an overwhelming feeling of wilderness here. There are no villages and no snow machine traffic. There are no sounds other than the dogs “pitter-patter” and the occasional “hoot” from a Great Horned Owl. When the trail ventured close to the river’s edge, I would shine my headlight into the trees and bushes and look for company. I saw very little.

Our solitude was interrupted only three times in eight hours. We passed two camping teams: Jessie Royer and Sven Haltman. I was impressed with their race plans - not many people camp on the Yukon.

The third interruption was a bit more comical. A red fox came trotting towards the team directly into my headlight beam. He became disoriented by the light and kept coming. Needless to say, the dogs got very excited for the canine company and ran to greet him. We were on a collision course when I realized that I was actually blinding the fox. So, I turned my headlight to the side and he saw the team only 10 feet from him! He did a quick side step and ran out to the side. Quito began to think this was a game, so she ran out to the side as well and followed the fox. The fox continued trotting parallel to the team, passing us just like another dog team would. My team began the 180 degree turn and started to follow the fox back down the trail from where we had just come. I stopped the sled and I yelled “Hey!!!” My whole outfit looked back at me with their tails in the air. “What?” “Gee. North.... please.” They sulked as they turned back around. The fox sat in the trail directly behind us. He, obviously, had never encountered a dog team.

We pulled into EAGLE ISLAND at six in the morning after a great night. The checkpoint was busy. Mushers and teams were everywhere. Only John Baker had left and, it turns out, I would never catch sight of him again. As I did my chores I looked around at the teams parked here and there. I went to talk to Sonny Lindner, who was near by, and Hans Gatt. Sonny was not very pleased with his last run, whereas Hans said his team was, just now, coming on strong. I overheard Hugh Neff say, “Can you believe John left already?” In only 30 minutes, Hugh followed suit. There was a steady stream of teams leaving the checkpoint through the early morning hours.

This checkpoint activity was actually irrelevant to my race plan because I had declared my 8 hour rest. I would not leave until two in the afternoon, regardless of when everyone else left. I went about my chores and took my time doing so.

There was an Arctic Oven tent set up for the musher’s sleeping tent. I moved some of my gear inside to dry out. It was warmer than outside, if you got near the oil drip stove. The checker had told me that straw was not allowed in the tent this year, so I laid out my sleeping pad on the cold ground and tried to make up a bed. I flashed back to my last camp out debacle. I went back outside and found my straw bag, filled it with straw and tied the bag up tightly. I was pretty sure that he meant that I shouldn’t bring loose straw into the tent, but a contained straw “mattress” seemed legal. This would be my longest rest since TAKOTNA and I needed to get some quality sleep. I slept for four hours.

When I woke up, I went outside and a whole different group of mushers had arrived. This makes you nervous when the race leaders are there as you go to sleep and the 20th place team is there when you wake up. The reality check is that Iditarod is a competition of the highest calibre. If you slow down or make a mistake your loss is the gain for someone else. I saw Ken Anderson’s team and then went to chat with Michelle Phillips. She had very bad luck during her earlier racing season, so I was sort of rooting for her to do well. I saw Rick Swenson at a distance. He was certainly getting a good rest - sound asleep, and snoring, on a huge pile of straw outside. He really knows how to make a straw bed!

Pretty soon we were back in the groove and trotting along the Yukon River. The sun was directly overhead, so we went slowly, but I tried to make the most of it. I fed the team a lot again. We stopped every hour to snack and every other hour to dish out a small meal to each dog. This slowed our overall progress, but it kept the dogs happy and well hydrated.

During the heat of the day, with the sun directly over head, it was hot for a husky. About 6 hours into our run, we passed a team camped off the trail. It was Mike Williams Jr. I stopped to snack the team and talked to Mike. When he had been in EAGLE ISLAND he had told me that he was worried about running in the heat of the day. Swenson had told him that he should wait until it cooled off, but I told him that I was was leaving after my 8 hours were up. Mike decided to leave and was now regretting that decision. So, he had stopped to give his team some water. I asked him if he wanted some dog food, since I had once again carried tons. But, he said he had plenty and would just rest for a short time. The effects of warm temperatures on the Alaskan Husky are deleterious. By stopping his team for a water break, Mike surely helped his team in the long run.

The Yukon travels mainly north/south here and the wind began to pick up from the north. This would be good for the dogs. There is a section of trail about 20 miles south of KALTAG that is notorious for wind. I knew that it if this breeze kept up, it would be a doozy again this year.

It started to get dark and the river veered to the east. I could tell the direction change because the wind started to hit me on the left cheek instead of straight forward. When the trail came out from behind a tall river bluff, the wind cut into us. It blew for about an hour until the trail started to hug the eastern shore of the river. This cooled the dogs immediately. Soon, the village lights of KALTAG came into view.

I knew that this run had taken me longer than expected. I had stopped too many times for an efficient run. But, the dogs were still looking great when I pulled into KALTAG, so I tried not to think about losing time.


I got to the checkpoint during the wee hours of the night and signed in at the checkpoint headquarters. The checkpoint is laid out such that after a dog teams arrives, it is parked quite a distance past the headquarters. After parking, I walked back to the headquarters to get a bucket of water. I fed everyone and a Vet looked through the team. I rubbed down some shoulders and gave Tony a full body massage.

The community hall was right next to the resting team. I went inside and saw a few mushers asleep. I looked at my wrist watch as I do ten-thousand times during the race, but I could not remember what time I had arrived. I hadn’t written it down in my Vet Book, as I normally do. There were several computer generated race print outs laying around on the tables, but none of them were up to date. I didn’t want to walk back over to the checkpoint headquarters again and I doubted if anyone was awake at three in the morning. So, I sat in a stupor for a while and listened to all of the snoring around me. Not knowing when I arrived, really threw me off. Finally, I decided that I would just set my alarm for an hour from the current time and lay down for a nap. I still didn’t like the idea of not knowing exactly when I had arrived, but I feel asleep anyhow.

I woke up a few minutes before my alarm went off. I wanted so badly to stay asleep, but I forced myself to stand up. It helped that I saw Sven getting packed to leave.

Sven is normally a very upbeat and happy guy, but he was irritated right then. He was doing his 8-hour rest and said that officials told him that he could leave at 6:50 AM. But, apparently it was daylight savings time and Sven thought that the race officials had tacked on an extra hour to his 8-hour. I tried to analyze his predicament and help out, but that surpassed my mental ability right then. I didn’t even know if the clock was moving back or forward. This made me think about my own situation. I didn’t know when I had arrived or how long I had rested. And, now, I didn’t even know what time it would be when I left.

I knew that I had to decide something immediately. So, I planned to leave at: 5:30 AM, regardless. Sven told me that he was leaving at 5:50 AM. (Of course, with a clear, rested mind it is obvious that 6:50 AM daylight savings time and 5:50 AM “Sven time” was, in fact, the same time!) It was obvious that I was pretty foggy. When I get extremely tired my mind spins in the same circle of thought. I told myself to just stop thinking and get moving.

The dogs were ready to go at 5:30 AM. KALTAG was great to leave, but challenging all the same. The route zig zags out of town through the lighted up streets. Since it was early morning, no one was awake yet, except for some barking dogs. I had planned to make the one long 90 mile run over to UNALAKLEET. The dogs had built up to this run and their spirits were great. They had been eating well too, so I knew it should not be a problem.

The trail heads west from the village. It is the same route that the Iron Dog Snowmachine Race followed only weeks earlier. These 75 mph race machines jump from mogul to mogul spinning their tracks underneath. This inevitably adds to the height and width of those trail bumps. The more machines that pass by, the rougher the trail becomes. The ruts were huge this year and my sled bounced from one to the next. The dogs even got frustrated as the sled would slap up and quickly down, pulling their harness lines with it. More then once a dog would look back like “What gives?!?”

I began talking to myself. I started to get silly. Out loud, I told the dogs to blame the politicians for the trail. “It’s always a politician’s fault, right? It’s got to be someone’s fault. Let’s blame it on Todd Palin. He was out here on a snowmachine last month. Hey! Maybe it’s Sarah Palin’s fault the trail is so poor.” During all of my complaining, the dogs just kept right on trucking. They are so forgiving ... I could learn a lot!

Sven caught up and passed us when I stopped to snack the team. Once again, the weather conditions were great - no wind and clear sky. As the sun came above the horizon however, I could tell that it was going to be another warm day. Sven and I ran about the same speed and I could see his team moving along the ridges ahead of us.

It is beautiful country here. It is high arctic tundra with bald mountains to the north and south. The sky became a light magenta during the sunrise and the white glow of the mountain peaks stood out beautifully.

In a few hours, we were passed by two snow machines. I glared at them! Then, I realized that they were probably even more uncomfortable on those moguls than I was. I couldn’t imagine the pounding in my back if I had to sit down on that trail. Ouch!

I was really pleased with the team’s speed. We reached the Tripod Flats shelter cabin faster than I had in the last 5 years. At this point, thank goodness, the trail widened every so often, and the bumps lessened. We tried to stay on the smoothest sections of trail. So, I would “gee” and “haw” the team every now and then. This got everyone excited and listening for the next command.

Decisions, decisions

We traveled several more hours before nearing Old Woman shelter cabin. When the trail dropped down onto a windy little river, I knew we were within a mile of the cabin. I had carried a meal for the dogs, so I decided to feed them here. I parked in the shadows under several trees. When we stopped it was obvious that the temperatures were rising. The wind chill that is created on a dog team trotting down the trail has more effect that one might believe. When we stopped, the dogs laid down and began panting. Some of them dug little holes in the snow in order to find a cooler spot.

I fed everyone in individual little piles. To my surprise, they didn’t gobble it all up. Sometimes, dogs don’t eat for a variety of reasons, but this squad had been 100% hungry for much of the race. The heat was having an effect!

I scooped the uneaten dog food back into my cooler for a later time. I stretched the team out and rubbed a few dogs with handfuls of snow. They still looked a little warm, but ready. We started to head down the trail again.

Old Woman shelter cabin is a great place. It is tucked back in a small forested area off of the main trail. The thing is, most travelers stop at the cabin, so this side trail looks like the main trail and the main trail looks like the side trail. None of the front four dogs on my team - Quito, Scout, Nacho, or Olivia - had ever been on this part of Iditarod. I decided that I didn’t even want them to know that this “cabin option” existed. So, at the fork in the trail, I gave them a definitive “haw” and they took the route less traveled. We skirted entirely around the place. We did hear a dog team bark as we passed and smelled the wood smoke from the cabin’s stove. The dogs peered over towards the noise and barely got a glimpse of a parked dog team and a tiny cabin. Tony was the only dog who thought that I had missed our turn. He stopped pulling. I stopped a few hundred yards up the trail and got his mind off the cabin by giving him, and everyone else, small salmon snacks. They liked them and we continued.

This section of trail is vast with very few trees and rolling endless hills. It is difficult to estimate your speed because the land is so huge. You often feel like you are barely crawling. Overall, the team had lost it’s luster. It was due to the heat of the day, I was sure. It was about noon and the sun was pounding down without a cloud in the sky. We continued and I watched every dog closely. Many years ago - my first Iditarod race - I had a dog named Martin overheat. He actually got wobbly legs and after I stopped the team he had a seizure. I cooled him in the snow and carried him to the next village. He flew back to Anchorage with a veterinarian. Martin retired from racing that year and had a great life in Wisconsin without another medical issue. But, that whole experience makes me very cautious.

At about noon, Nacho looked back at me. He stared me right in the eyes. I stopped the team and looked him over. He jumped around and wagged his tail as I examined him. I moved him farther back in the team and moved Biscuit up to swing. I continued down the trail. In less than a half a mile, he did it again.

Something was wrong. Nacho never looks back. He’s the kind of dog that would leave with or without you. At times, I wasn’t sure he knew I was on board. I stopped again and took his boots off. Dogs sweat through their feet and thus running on a cold snowy trail “barefoot” sometimes will cool a dog. But, in doing this, you run the risk of damaging their feet. We continued.

I analyzed my current situation while on the move. Nacho was too hot. He was the thickest coated dog on the team. But, the other dogs must be rather warm as well. The conservative move would be to carry him. I considered this. He is a big dog. He probably wouldn’t cool off it I loaded him inside a zipped up sled bag while panting. And he surely wouldn’t stay in a non-zipped up sled bag. Most likely, when we arrived in UNALAKLEET, hours from now, I would probably have to drop him. Plus, the overall speed of the team would certainly slow down after I added an additional 50 “Nacho” pounds to their load. This would make the overall run time longer and thus the remaining dogs in the team would have to work harder. In the end, I might have to drop another dog as well if I carried Nacho.

Right at this moment, we came upon a split in the trail. The fork to the left was just a small trail that connected back to the main stem in 50 yards. “Haw.” We would camp.

When I first stopped, I was bummed. We had been moving so well for the last 250 miles. I felt like these eleven dogs would all make it to the finish line. We were nearly on the coast, for heaven’s sake! My mind was working overtime:

Was I being too conservative? This is a race and here I am camping again. What’s the race plan now? If I rest here for a hour, then I should stay in UNALAKLEET for 4 or 5 hours. But, it will still be warm when I leave, what’s the point of staying only an hour? If I stay here for a couple of hours, then I should stay in UNALAKLEET for only 3 or 4 hours. It is very hard to stay in a checkpoint less than 3 hours. No, I can’t stay 3 hours. If I rest too many hours anywhere, I will be giving up these hours and finishing places to my competition. Aliy.... that’s irrelevant if they need the rest. You won’t be going anywhere if you don’t rest them when they need it!

As I snacked the team and repacked my sled, I had settled on staying for two hours and moving down the trail to UNALAKLEET for a 4 hour rest. That would cool the team off and hopefully the temperatures would drop some. That would be a total of 6 hours rest - more than plenty.

The trail soon became a busy place. Two BLM rangers stopped their machines to say a quick hello. We talked about the new shelter cabins along the trail. They asked me why I stopped here instead of Old Woman cabin. They also gave me a cedar plaque that said “Iditarod Trail”. Kinda neat, but strange to be adding to my load during a dog race.

As soon as they left, two more snow machines pulled up. It was a cameraman for Iditarod Insider and his guide, Bernie Willis. I answered a few of the cameraman’s questions as he shot video. I think that I was rambling on a bit too much. They left after 15 minutes.

I sat down on my sled and looked at the team. They were sound asleep in the sunshine. What a perfect place to rest.

Then it dawned on me. What if I stayed here for a long rest and went straight through UNALAKLEET without stopping? Back to the chess game. That move made more sense than anything else. But, if I did that, then I needed to get a few things done right away. I would have to put jackets on the dogs. I don’t like them to sleep too long without jackets. I needed to make a good bed for myself. I definitely needed to sleep. I had to make water for myself, I had finished all of my Gatorade. In my hurry to make dog water when I first arrived, I had carelessly used all but one bottle of fuel. So, I would need to make a fire to melt snow.

Was this the final decision? How would the team do when I asked them to trot right through another checkpoint? I guess we would see.

I put jackets on all of the dogs and even cut a few spruce boughs. Most of them got up, peed and laid back down on their beds. Even Nacho looked comfy. I gathered up some additional spruce for my bed and took out my sleeping bag. It was practically summer time temperatures in the sunshine, so I knew that I would sleep well. I was very thirsty however.

I walked around and began to gather some firewood. As I did this a few dog teams passed me. First, I saw Martin Buser. He stopped his team and talked for a few minutes. He had just camped at Old Woman cabin and his thirteen dogs looked well rested. He didn’t stay long. Then I saw Mike Williams Jr. His team looked a little warm in the afternoon sunshine. Robert Bundzen was next. I think he was sleeping when he passed my camp because he looked at me like I was a hallucination. I said a quick “Howdy.” Then came Ken Anderson. He seemed worried to see me there and asked if I needed any dog food. I thought that was nice of him.

I had a pretty big fire going as the teams passed me. I had made a simple tripod to hang my cook pot on, so that I could melt enough snow for a half gallon of Gatorade or more. I was really looking forward to it. Soon enough, the snow melted, I hydrated myself and curled up on my bed. I slept great for two hours.

Both the dogs and myself were rejuvenated when we started again. I changed the team composition a little. I kept Scout and Quito up front, but Olivia was in swing by herself now. I moved Biscuit and Meg right behind Olivia. Then I put Nacho and Tony together. I still had Boondocks and Beemer in tandem and Willie and Tatfish in the rear. I was happy with this set up.

We left the camp spot with a great deal of energy and speed. At one time, I even thought, “Wow. If my race fans are checking my GPS tracker now they’ll be happy!” This was definitely the best run I have ever had into UNALAKLEET. When I spotted the village on the horizon the sun was just setting. This was the perfect time to be running a dog team!